A New Zealand scientist warned Wednesday of sophisticated Asian-based rackets producing billions of fake medicines that kill thousands of people every year.Dallas Mildenhall said some of the counterfeit pills not only lacked the proper ingredients to treat illnesses such as malaria but contained carcinogens, solvents and even remains of insects.
Mildenhall, who has been working for the last 18 months with Interpol to track down illegal drug manufacturers in Asia, said that most were based in border areas between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
He said two operations in China had been shut down after forensic analysis of fake tablets.
"The counterfeiting is so good that it's impossible to tell the fake pills and packaging apart from the genuine product, even with close visual inspection," said Mildenhall, who works for GNS Science at Lower Hutt near Wellington.
"Every security measure taken by the genuine manufacturers, such as holograms on the packaging and serial numbers on the blister packs, has been successfully copied by the counterfeiters."
Mildenhall said the main pharmaceutical being faked was an anti-malaria agent called Artesunate. He said the bogus drugs were mainly sold in Asia and Africa, but a wide range of counterfeit drugs was being produced and turning up in many countries via the internet.
GNS Science described Mildenhall as one of the world's top forensic palynologists, a scientist who studies pollen and spores.
He said while working for Interpol, he analysed fake pills that contained the pollen of about 30 species of trees and herbs found in areas along the Chinese-Vietnam border.
Other substances found in the pills included dust, animal and human hair, insect remains, charcoal and carbon from motor vehicle exhausts.
"These fake drugs are causing thousands of deaths in Southeast Asia each year," Mildenhall said, adding they had started appearing in Africa, a bigger market where counterfeit pharmaceuticals could be even more deadly.
"If they take hold in Africa, there will be a massive humanitarian problem."
Mildenhall said counterfeit drugs in Asia were typically sold alongside genuine drugs by roadside vendors who are not aware that their products are fake.
The products are attractive to buyers because they are less expensive than the genuine drugs, he said.